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The Apostolic Fathers: Serendipity Strikes

In my previous post I blasted from the past about my translation of the Apostolic Fathers for the Loeb Classsical Library.  That was actually the first of a few posts on the topic, and since I referred to the next ones, I thought I should give them — at least the one that followed.  Here it is.  As I point out, in a way it’s about how, in a concrete way, life is a series of chances…..


It seems that much that has happened in my professional life has been because of serendipity.  Back when I was a believer, we called it Providence.  (!)   It’s how I got my first job at Rutgers in 1984; how I got my current position at UNC in 1988; how I got asked to write something other than a technical study involving the Greek manuscript tradition of the New Testament – a textbook for undergraduates (in the early 1990s), and thus, in a sense, started my publishing career; how I had my first bestselling book (Misquoting Jesus) become a NY Times bestseller in 2005; and, as it turns out, how I came to undertake my first major translation project, a new edition of the Apostolic Fathers for the Loeb Classical Library (starting in 1999; published in 2003).

I may tell the other stories at some point (I think I’ve told the first one already on the blog; I’ll have to look to see). For now, the Loebs.

So in 1999 (I *think* that was the year – it may have been a year before or after) I was teaching my PhD seminar on the Apostolic Fathers.   First, a bit of background.   Since UNC is a major research university, the faculty here have a relatively (OK, very) light teaching load: just two courses each semester.  And since our department has a strong and thriving PhD program, in which NT/Early Christianity plays a vital role, I teach just one undergraduate course and one PhD seminar each semester.   Our PhD students take seminars for 2-3 years, and so I have five or six seminars that I offer in rotation over a three-year period.   These include a graduate-level introduction to the major critical issues in the study of the New Testament (including the history of the discipline); a seminar on New Testament textual criticism (reconstructing the earliest form of the text from the surviving manuscripts and writing the history of its transmission); early Christian apocrypha (the Gospels, epistles, Acts, and apocalypses that did not make it into the New Testament); literary forgery in the early Christian tradition; and – well, other things over the years (including readings in the Greco-Roman religions; the rise of early Christian anti-Judaism; early Christian heresy and orthodoxy; Christianizing the Roman empire; and, well, other things).   And the Apostolic Fathers.

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The Loeb Apostolic Fathers: The Challenges (Again)
Taking the Temperature of the Blog October 2017



  1. Avatar
    stokerslodge  October 30, 2017

    Ahh Bart, me thinks you’re wrong about the serendipity bit. I bet it’s all part of some vast eternal plan. Won’t you at least allow for that possibility…?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2017

      Somehow I think the Lord of the Universe, with his two trillion galaxies, this average one of which has 100 billion stars (and who knows how many millions of other universes!) has other things to worry about than my publication ambitions. 🙂

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  November 2, 2017

        I’m surprised your post sparked such a discussion on serendipity but, since it did, I’ll add my <2 cents' worth:
        There is so little we actually know about how the universe works (compared to what I imagine it might be to know everything) that particles in our brains might conceivably interact with particles in the surrounding environment to produce "serendipitous" events on very rare occasions. I'm thinking of Alexander Fleming and his discovery of penicillin. Not only did he have to screw up by allowing a bacterial culture to be contaminated by a mold, it had to be a particular mold that would have time (while he was out of town) to grow enough to produce the toxin that killed the surrounding bacteria, and he had to have the curiosity that could break through the ordinary urge to toss the failed project and start over. I can't begin to calculate (not being a statistician) the combined probability of that series of events, but I suspect it is many veries of smalls. While I do not believe in a Supreme Being that acts with intent, I am unwilling to deny the maxim; there are no accidents: only people who aren't paying attention.

  2. Avatar
    UCCLMrh  October 30, 2017

    What? You mean it wasn’t all a part of God’s Plan?

    [Just being snarky, no reply deserved.]

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 30, 2017

    I am not believer, but I still think a lot about the ending of Walker Percy”s “The Second Coming”: Maybe a gift is a Sign of a Giver.

  4. Avatar
    ardeare  October 30, 2017

    This reminds me of a story I once heard about motivational speaker Les Brown. A gentleman from a large bank was speaking to a group of us and retold of a time in his life where he was questioning whether he should stay on his current path or take additional training which might take him in a completely different direction, but one he was very much interested in. Les Brown told him, “I’d rather prepare for an opportunity and have it never come than have that opportunity come and not be prepared.” That opportunity came and he was prepared.

  5. Avatar
    DaveAyres  October 30, 2017

    Seredipity or acts of Providence are plentiful in my life. Why, this moment is one of them. I do not keep up with this blog as much as I would like to. Today I decided to check in. What do I find? A discussion about serendipity. How serendipitous.

    A challenge of understanding serendipity is that it is not scientific. It is unmeasurable, unpredictable. If there is any pattern it is seemingly merely a pattern of fortunate happenstances.

    Today I presented to a co-worker a fantastic example post hoc ergo Procter hoc fallacy. Rarely was an example so clear. It involved computers where cause and effect are tightly bound. It is easy to to trip over the fallacy where serendipitous events occur. Including the serendipity of a discussion about serendipity and cause and effect fallacies.

    To ascribe serendipitous occasions to godly or angelic direction opens a can of worms that squiggle and refuse to line up in orderly fashion.

    Ultimately the only reponse that I feel safe offering where serendipity is concerned is one of humble gratitude. Because no matter how many times I can be grateful that action A seemingly magically led to result B, giving me something enjoyable and pleasurable, there are the innumerous times when serendipity did not stop suffering.

    So if there is Providence that sometimes seems to work serendipitous miracles of timing in my life, there are many others whom to my mind don’t enjoy the serendipitous moments and in fact endure much more suffering than enjoyable serendipitous moments. . That doesn’t allow me to claim I don’t believe there is a high power of some sort; it just means that my responsibility is to respond with grateful humility and to somehow share the benefits I have enjoyed as a result of serendipity.

    Be grateful for what I receive by giving to those who receive less.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 31, 2017

      I agree!!

    • Avatar
      Skepticalone  November 1, 2017

      I am not sure about zeitgeist as it relates to serendipity. And of course I am not sure about anything but I do believe many things . We are told not to resist evil but overcome it with good . Does evil exist because God does not resist it but gives us the opportunity to overcome it with good ? Is there a place also for a type of Karma ..i.e. sewing and reaping ..I think of overconsumption and global warming . See Isiah 23rd chapter . Also ..I wonder if in the USA we are reaping the product of Fathers not raising their children but pursuing ” career” while others actually influence us . See Malachi 4:6.
      There is a current campaign in the south anyway which has people place a ” thank you Jesus ” poster in their yards , on cars , etc. This must be very offensive to poor believers who suffer for their faith or live in poverty.. This sect would hold to an understanding that ” God has blessed them ” and I am sure it is often through serendipitous events ….I have actually heard this . ( God closes one door and opens another . ) This theology still smacks of self and it is my understanding that Christ was the fleshly/visible demonstration of an invisible God. And he did not appear to be concerned with His self . It is interesting that Dr. Erhman is perhaps republishing writings from the the early church fathers. From what I have read from some apologist like Justin Martyr ..early believers did not seek their rewards in this life or if they did , it was not temporal rewards . I believe they understood their reward to be a reconciliation with the Father through His Son through the forgiveness of sins.

  6. Avatar
    Hume  October 30, 2017

    Bart, we the Blog need some old preaching videos of you! It’s date night material.

  7. Avatar
    Hume  October 30, 2017

    How do we know the NT was written in a different country? Since the language of the educated was Greek all through the R-Empire, why could it not have been written in Israel?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 31, 2017

      We have only one author from Palestine in the first century who wrote in Greek. That is Josephus, who admits he had a terribly difficult time at it, since it wasn’t his native language. And he was one of the very top literary elite of his age — unlike the writers of the Gospels. So it seems highly unlikely. (Plus a number of comments in the Gospels show that the authors are almost certainly not from Israel: Mark 7:3 shows that Mark doesn’t understand Jewish customs, e.g.)

      • John4
        John4  November 1, 2017

        The Haroer Collins Study Bible, Bart, on Mark 7:3:
        “That *all* the Jews observed hand washing has often been taken as historically inaccurate, but the practice was indeed widespread among Jews of the time and not confined to the Pharisees.”

        Do you disagree with this statement?

        Thx! 🙂

        • Bart
          Bart  November 1, 2017

          Yes indeed! I wonder what evidence this person is thinking of. It was not standard procedure among most Jews.

          • Avatar
            HawksJ  November 2, 2017

            Bart, the question about ancient customs reminded me of an off-topic question I’ve wanted to ask:

            The NT does not hide the fact that wine was part of Jesus’ life. Fundamentalists like to explain this by talking about unsafe drinking water in ancient times and how people ‘had’ to drink wine for ‘safe hydration’. There is no doubt that safe water was an issue, and in many areas, still is, but I find it hard to believe it was the primary source of hydration for anybody but a few wealthy alcoholics.

            From a historical perspective, what are your thoughts and have they changed since your days as a Fundy?

          • Bart
            Bart  November 3, 2017

            Wow, I’d never heard that one before. It’s contradicted by masses of ancient evidence (do these people think that eveyrone drank wine all day long? Wouldn’t they be drunk the whole time?) — even from the NT (“if anyone gives you a cup of cold water in my name….” or think of John 4 and Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman … or, well, why are there all these “wells” mentioned in the Bible; is it because they were digging for wine?

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 31, 2017

      There’s a reason it took a diaspora Jew like Paul to spread the gospel message to the gentile world.

  8. Avatar
    Hume  October 30, 2017

    Does the bible say Lucifer was created first out of the Archangels? I can’t seem to find that info.

  9. Avatar
    jdmartin21  October 30, 2017

    Bart, A question for you unrelated to the current thread… The Museum of the Bible is scheduled to open on November 17. There has been some controversy because of the Green family ties to the museum and the Green’s acquisition of bible artifacts which have questionable provenance. In a press conference ahead of the opening museum leaders indicated that they had consulted several scholars about the museum exhibits and had adjusted its content based on the feedback they received. Has there been any buzz among biblical scholars about the museum and its artifacts? Do you know any scholars who were contacted by the museum and who provided feedback?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 31, 2017

      Yes indeed: an important book about it has been published, Bible Nation by Candida Moss and Joel Baden.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  October 31, 2017

      Steve Green said in an article that MOOB would have a book on display showing the provenance of all their artifacts. He didn’t say when though.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  October 31, 2017

      Ha! I meant MOTB. Oops…

  10. Avatar
    Tobit  October 31, 2017

    I was just considering buying an Apostolic Fathers translation! Serendipidy indeed. No doubt yours is great, but what do you think of Michael W. Holmes’ translation, if you’ve read it?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 31, 2017

      Yes, it’s very good. Michael and I were grad students together (he was actually my teacher my first year in my MDiv program) and we have been friends for nearly 40 years!

  11. Avatar
    Skepticalone  October 31, 2017

    Yes , I look back at serendipity in my life and it is pretty astonishing. As you say , considering the gazillions of galaxies but yet a sparrow does not fall to the ground without His knowledge. But to your point, we make, I believe a grave error if we think this is about us . It is for us but about Him. The serendipity events in my life actually cost me the prosperous path I was on but it was a small trade for the potential to make a difference in someone’s eternity . Cause and effect are hard to see when the effect is slow and viewed in microcosms of each generation without the end in view.

    • Avatar
      DaveAyres  November 1, 2017

      Your description of serendipity in your life is close to describing my belief as well. Serendipity is not about us individually. The one point where I – with respect – disagree is that it is about Him. But that is because my understanding of what we call God is that God is us.

      Part of the reason my belief leans that direction is that suffering and evil has to fit in my world view. The version where evil is a fallen angel makes no sense to me. Beautifully poetic but that contradicts that there is loving God. From my experience there is a divine spirt or spirits, I think zeitgeist is a useful word, that prevail. It or they exist in societies. Not unlike the way that Yahweh is identified as the divine spirit for Israelites.

      From my experience this spirit is also found in smaller groups of people, even to groupings as small as families. There are families where good prevails and families where evil prevails. It is proportionate. Families don’t go to war with each other (well, excepting the Hatfields and the McCoys, and mafia families). But depending on the spirit that prevails in the family where one lives, the proportion of good to evil, along with that of good and evil serendipitous events, is weighted depending on the whether a good or evil spirit predominates in that family (and yes, I do believe that there are families where there is more evil than good).

      But this gets into theology and away from serendipity.

  12. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  November 2, 2017

    I’ve meant to ask for a long time and keep forgetting: why do some of the OT chapter and verse numbers differ between Christian and Jewish bibles? Obviously, two individuals (at least) did the numbering, but how did they manage to come up with identical (not very logical) breaks most of the time, but not all the time?

  13. Avatar
    ancadudar@yahoo.com  March 12, 2018

    I’m still a Christian for now but barely hanging on to this faith, however, I want to thank you Bart for your excellent work! After reading the works of the early Church fathers, I could not help but wonder if they forged some of Pauls letters, or at least interpolated them because these “Fathers” were so misogynistic and I suspected that they may have at least influenced Ephesians 5. I then started to google for scholarly work on NT forgeries and I came across your works. I have read a few of your books, and it really opened my eyes to a lot of things. I have been telling my Christian friends for years that pseudepigraphical epistles are fraudulent documents and have done nothing but harm women and prolong slavery in the name of God by exploiting Paul’s authority. Something was always off to me in the idea of “Jesus” and Paul condoning slavery. I know it was an acceptable practice back then and that neither Paul nor Jesus purposefully made an effort to free slaves, but to say it’s a “calling” to be a slave like 1 Peter does is a bit too far from the Paul in 1 Cor that said to get your freedom if the chance arises. And how can you love your neighbor like you love yourself, yet turn around and enslave and exploit someone for personal gain? How can you love your wife like you love yourself, yet rule over her like “God” does the “church”, and in everything too with no limits, as if women don’t need integrity and privacy? This is one of the most painful times in my life because I don’t think I can hang onto this faith anymore, a faith that looks just like Roman imperialism. If I didn’t know better, id say that the authority structures laced throughout the NT were written exclusively to benefit the upper-middle-class paterfamilias. Everyone I’ve tried to talk to has bashed me for being “rebellious” instead of just accepting my “God-given” role as a woman in Christianity. If it was not for this horrible view of women that the NT holds, I would stay, but the way it is now and has been for the past 2,000 years, there is nothing here for me other than a life of “humiliation” as an inferior existing to kiss the ass of a man. I fell in love with the persona and character of Jesus in my mid-teens at least with the portrayal we have of Him in our NT, I should have opened my eyes wider before I committed half of my life to this religion and read the rest of the NT first, I should have seen it was laced with poison and injustice.

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